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Biden’s convincing debate performance

In a time when the coronavirus crisis has a frightened country desperate for competent leadership, Joe Biden demonstrated that he knows what must be done now.

Former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders debate in Washington Sunday night.Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Joe Biden was the big winner in Sunday’s Democratic primary debate, but the big loser wasn’t Senator Bernie Sanders, his rival for the Democratic nomination. It was President Trump, the man the former vice president will likely square off against in the fall for the presidency.

Biden dominated not because he claimed the evening’s easy headlines with his announcement that he would pick a woman as his running mate — why, who would have guessed? — and nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court.

Rather, he dominated because, in a time when the coronavirus crisis has a frightened country desperate for competent leadership, Biden demonstrated that he knows what must be done now in the struggle to contain the contagion and what will be required in the future to help hard-pressed Americans keep their lives and families more or less intact.


One prong of Trump’s strategy has been to portray Biden as slipping steadily into his dotage, a man too diminished by age to lead the country. That’s a strange tactic for an incumbent who after three years on the job can deliver neither an Oval Office address nor a public briefing in a way that avoids errors and inspires confidence.

Nevertheless, it has been a principal line of Trumpian attack, one shamelessly echoed by certain cynical right-wing political pugilists. It’s as though repeated claims of mental incompetence against Biden can negate repeated demonstrations of managerial incompetence by Trump.

That won’t resonate with anyone who saw Biden’s strong Sunday performance. It wasn’t completely glitch-free, but overall, he came across as someone who knows what must be done and who is familiar enough with the levers of the federal government to get it done.

Heretofore, Biden has been uneven in the debates. He’s never been dismayingly inadequate, but the crowded format and strict time limits in the multi-candidate affairs often left him offering heated and hurried answers or interjections. That hasn’t worked well for him. Sunday’s two-person face-off, where each candidate had ample time to respond, did. Biden was confident and at ease, his knowledge and experience on full display.


It wasn’t that Sanders was bad. But he came off more as a left-wing advocate than a would-be executive ready to take charge of a troubled country. His clear goal was to use the coronavirus crisis to advance his call for a transformative democratic socialist political revolution. In particular, he hoped to underscore the need he sees for Medicare for All, as the Vermont senator calls his plan for a sweeping single-payer health-care system.

And there’s an argument there to be made. If, as Biden called for, the entire cost of coronavirus-related health care should be paid by the government, why isn’t single-payer the solution for regular health care as well?

Still, Biden effectively countered by noting that Italy’s overwhelmed health-care system is a single-payer arrangement of the sort Sanders wants; that Sanders still hasn’t specified how he’d fund his plan; and that Sanders’ proposal has a four-year transition period, while Biden’s own health-care improvements are (at least arguably) more easily and quickly accomplished.

Sanders also persecuted his case against Biden by going after him for a series of votes he made while in the Senate, from the bankruptcy law to the Hyde Amendment to NAFTA to the Defense of Marriage Act to the Iraq War to an attempt to tag him with once wanting to cut Social Security.


In part, what that reflects is the different roles the two men have played during their long careers in Congress.

Biden, elected to the Senate in 1972 at age 29, was an influential figure there for decades, often near the center of the legislative give and take. Sanders, an independent who has served in Congress since his election to the House in 1990 at age 49, has been a critic of the system from the left side of the spectrum. Biden has defined leadership by things he has helped get done, the actual impact he has had. Sanders, contrariwise, sees leadership not as what one can accomplish through hands-dirtying compromise but from a political purist’s high ground: what he has advocated for and what he has opposed.

That difference was well illustrated in the way the two discussed the bank bailout of 2008. Sanders voted against it. His thinking, as he explained it, was this:

“You want a bailout? That's fine. Have your friends pay for it, not working people.”

Biden had a very different perspective.

“Look, the fact of the matter is that if, in fact, the banks had … gone under, we would be in a great depression,” he said in elucidating his vote. “And the fact was that it saved the economy from going into a depression.” And, incidentally, also helped save the auto industry.


In the Democratic race, Biden’s center-left pragmatism has largely prevailed over Bernie’s further left purism.

Although Sanders’ would-be revolution has fizzled, he can take some credit for having moved the Democratic Party to the left. But he and his followers must realize that only matters if the party wins in November.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.